In the millenia before Ashtags and selfies and Ashes at Starbucks and neat little crosses administered with freshly washed hands, people knew you meant something if you had ashes on your heads.
You were mourning, or were sorrowful, or had done something so damaging to the community that public penance was required. You were one with the muck of the earth. You were dirty.
When the sky fell a few years ago, when I was diagnosed with a chronic illness and my love and I were long-distance for a very long time, I remember thinking “this is what life is now: one long string of disappointments and challenges. I will manage illness and watch the people I love grow old and die and watch myself do the same. This is adulthood”. I felt dirty, and I felt as if I would never be clean, and I was surprisingly peaceful about it.
This is not depression. This is realism. I’ve never been able to relate to the people who work hard to convince everyone they are spotless, above the fray. A part of me has always been covered in ashes, mourning and penitent, sinful and honest about it.
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign? – T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday
Please don’t worry about me or feel bad for me. Here’s why you shouldn’t: I no longer seek perfection from the world, or from you or from me. I rejoice in the mess of my life, in the glorious reality of acknowledging that most of what we get is a beautiful jumble.
It’s still beautiful, we are still beautiful, loved even, even when our life is covered in the ash of disappointment, willfulness, and pain.
This is how we find the clean heart we seek in today’s psalm – by looking clearsightedly at what we have. Only by knowing where the ash is in our lives can we learn how to be holy in our blessedly unique ways.
Knowing how the story ends, we can count on redemption. Perhaps someday I will be transfigured, gleaming white and clean again. But for now I will accept the messiness of life and know that the ashes on my head are a sign of a beautiful but confusing truth.
Have a blessed Ash Wednesday and Lent.